CIAO! Photographer Mario Testino has created his personal love token for Italy’s people, art, food, and fashion in the form of a new book published by TASCHEN.
This interview is also available to listen to as a podcast here.
Mario Testino, why Italy?
When I was a young guy I managed to get an Italian passport because my grandfather was of Italian origins. He was born in Italy and was from Lavagna in the Liguria region. He moved to Peru with his family, and my father was born in Peru and so was I. It is thanks to this Italian passport that I managed to have the career I’ve had.
Why do you say that it made your career?
As a Peruvian it was hard to travel freely through countries, and with the Italian passport I could travel anywhere at the drop of a hat. When I started my career jobs didn’t come with a lot of time in advance, they happened at the last moment. I had to have some way of being able to go to Milan or Paris or New York overnight, and an Italian passport allowed me to do that, even though I had never lived there.
Do you feel a bit Italian, not just because of your passport?
I do, and I relate to Italians very well. I am completely Peruvian of course, but I feel something of my past, and when I’m in Italy I feel at home everywhere.
Even though London has been your residence for 40 years?
My mother’s side of the family had an Irish element, so maybe I am a real mix after all. In London I like the fantasy, but in Italy I like the lifestyle.
“Italy has got that feeling of family, which I have come to realize is the most important.”
When did you go to Italy for the first time?
In 1977 I went as a tourist from London to spend my holidays visiting a couple of friends that had gone to study there. One was in Rome and the other one in Florence. My second time was a year later, and then I went to buy clothes, because when I first lived in London I had brought my clothes with me from Peru and they were very inadequate. I knew that in Italy you could buy clothes cheaply and so I went to Rome again. I remember the Jackie O’ Club in Rome in the late seventies and in the early 80s I started going to Milano, before I met Franca Sozzani.
Franca Sozzani was to become the editor of Vogue Italia for many years. How old were you when you met her?
I was 27 and not yet at all successful, but it was not long after that Franca Sozzani saw that Anna Wintour had given me some photos in Vogue in America and she gave me a story to do. She was editor of Per Lui and Lei at the time, and she started giving me work which took me to Milano often.
What kind of pictures were you taking then?
The interesting thing about that time period was that all the modelling agencies had this particular style of guy, very American, but this did not reflect my taste. Instead I looked on the streets of Milan and London for the people I wanted. Doing that made me establish my taste in who I would photograph and portray.
Were you very much influenced by somebody?
Which camera did you use?
I bought a camera called Nikkormat in Amsterdam airport. As well as going to Rome to buy clothes, I went to Amsterdam to buy the camera, because they said that you could go for a weekend and get a really cheap camera at the airport when you left. I did all my pictures with that camera.
In this book Ciao are there some pictures of that time?
The earliest is a bit later, in the 90s when I started working for Versace; then for Gucci; then for Dolce and Gabbana. It was in the beginning of the 90s that I started recording the fashion scene and the streets in the different cities that I would go to. I did a lot of work in Italy through the years, and it would be impossible to put everything I have done in one book. There were literally thousands of pictures up for the book and we had to choose only about 140.
“Italy is a thousand images, but, then again, together they make one.”
Mario Testino, what do you want to show in this book?
It is a homage to Italy. I want to show all the things that I like in Italy and really identify the things that make it so wonderful. Italy has got that feeling of family, which I have come to realize is the most important. It has amazing food, and amazing holiday destinations, and many different levels of society live together in the same place.
What do you picture in the book?
There’s a lot about people. People’s behaviour in the street; the way they eat their ice cream; the way they do their expressions with their hands; the way they enjoy life; the way they serve; how the waiters go walking down the street taking espressos and cappuccinos to the buildings around them; how people live in the summer; how they go on their boats; how they can pack a boat with a hundred people to share that moment of joy; how they celebrate weddings everywhere you go; and how people hold arm in arm. There is a lot of friendship.
Do you also feature monuments?
Lots of monuments, they seem to be so important in the history of Italy. Many cities in Europe have been bombed during the wars and lost a lot of monuments, but Italy still seems to have a lot of theirs. I’ve always been amazed by the Fontana di Trevi and humongous monuments like that. Normally you need space to see them, but there is only a little street that you can see them from. They’re hidden, and they’re built without any possibility of going back to look at them from a certain distance.
Which monuments do you picture in the book?
Fontana di Trevi, Piazza Navona and the Colosseum in Rome. In Napoli La Certosa di San Martino. There are a lot of interiors as well, both from churches and museums. The gallery of Palazzo Colonna in Rome, Piazza San Marco in Venice, and L’isola di San Giorgio.
What did you do to give the book structure?
I decided to divide the book in three. The first section I call In Giro, which is discovering Italy, really going around and seeing all the different things: the Palio di Siena, the houses in Tuscany, the canals of Venice, the streets of Milano and Naples, the island of Capri, the Aeolian islands.
What is the second section?
The second part is Alla Moda, fashion when I started working in Italy, because through fashion I started meeting designers. Madonna introduced me to the Versaces. With Carine Roitfeld I met Tom Ford when he was at Gucci. Through the perfume Light Blue I met Dolce & Gabbana, and it was the first time I did a TV commercial. Until then I had only done photographs.
How was Gianni Versace?
He was the first one to give me a couture campaign. When I gave him the pictures, he decided to dedicate a page that said: ‘Versace presents Madonna by Testino.’ I was surprised because only the great are called by their surname. At the time they were Avedon, Penn, and Newton.
Are you still friends with Madonna?
Sure, I know her. I did a lot with her. I did her album Ray of Light and I did a cover of Vanity Fair with her first child, Lourdes.
How is she?
She has an amazing eye and is a visionary. It was Madonna that asked me to shoot the couture campaign for Versace. The story goes that they had asked her to do the campaign with Avedon, but something had not gone well and she proposed me. I went to work a lot with Gianni. I did the last shoot that he did, which was a really uncanny photograph because it was thirteen girls dressed all in black that he had chosen himself to be photographed as the last photograph after his couture show in July. He died soon after.
Was this before you photographed Lady Diana?
The Lady Diana pictures were shot in April and came out in August. She died at the end of August. How weird that I did Diana’s last portrait and I did Gianni’s last sitting, and she’s wearing Versace in the picture. The Italians have a certain generosity, because in my museum in Lima, Peru, I have a room dedicated to the pictures of Princess Diana, and when I asked Donatella Versace if she could redo the dress for me she donated the actual dress that Diana wore for the cover of the Vanity Fair issue.
What is the third section about?
The third part is called Al Mare, and this is the part of the book that I dedicated to the fact that Italy is the most amazing holiday destination, the best.
Because you have beautiful sea, fabulous foods, lovely people and great limoncello!
What photographs do you show?
I have documented the sea from Amalfi to Stromboli, from Isola dei Galli to Capri to Palmarola to Isole Eolie, to Ostia near Rome.
Napoli, 1997. © Mario Testino
Betty Bee, Napoli, 1997. © Mario Testino
Avola, 2018. © Mario Testino
Piscina dei Mosaici, Foro Italico, Roma, 2001. © Mario Testino
Margherita Missoni and Francesca Carrozzini, Milano, 2003. © Mario Testino
Amalfi, 2017. © Mario Testino
“I did a lot of work in Italy through the years, and it would be impossible to put everything I have done in one book.”
Mario Testino, is Rome your favourite place?
I love Naples. It has the right mix of a very vivid art scene and it’s on the sea so you can go on a boat, or you can go on the seafront on the passegiatta. It has amazing food: mozzarella! I did my first exhibition there, and I even chose to do the Pirelli calendar in Naples where they had never done it before. I love the mixture of people that makes it so magical, and let’s not forget the history of Naples. I love Milano too because of the restaurants and people like Maria, the owner of La Latteria San Marco. Milano was my formation.
In Milano did you and Franca Sozzani eat at the Torre di Pisa restaurant?
Yes. In my early years she trained me how to run the business of fashion, how it worked and how to get what you wanted. She would give me a budget of two thousand dollars and say if you want to use that money to bring a girl from New York that is your business, but make sure you find all that you need within that money. It was a great way of training me.
Who else trained you?
Gucci and Versace taught me a lot, and companies like Missoni or Trussardi were also key for developing my multiple styles. Photographers usually have one style, but I realized that I was excited by many different styles. I could do Versace one day, Cavalli the next day, Gucci the next day, and Missoni the next. I could really interpret many styles, and I was excited by tapping into different people’s DNA and defining it.
Is the fashion world now over for you?
I’ve done it for 40 years, and the world of fashion has changed drastically. Somebody said to me that they went to the shows and they didn’t know anybody. People have moved on, and when I was in fashion a fashion company needed six images for their campaign for the whole season, for six months. Now they need a hundred images, because they have Instagram, social medias, shops with films, and photographs for advertising and billboards.
Did the internet change many things?
The internet shifted the power from magazines to bloggers and influencers. The internet changed many things, because a magazine takes a long time to print whereas online during that time you know it all. By the time the magazine comes out we have seen it all on online.
Do you put work on Instagram?
Yes, I have an account on Instagram and I have three point eight million followers. I put up all different things, mainly what I’m working on now but sometimes I look at what I did in the past. I started the Towel Series especially for Instagram, where everybody was photographed with only a towel, and in the book we have a picture of Bianca Balti from that series.
Why do a book and not put on a show?
A book is something that stays, that people can read easily and keep at home and look at many times, and get inspired and discover things, whereas a show has a short life and is transient. What I also like about a book is that with many pictures you can say one thing. You can have one message and also a hundred messages. It depends on how you look at it, if you start at the front, or start at the back, or if you just open it in the middle. You can get so many different emotions.
Is Italy one image?
Italy is a thousand images, but, then again, together they make one.
Photograph of Mario Testino by Alex Waltl.
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